Skip to main content

Interdisciplinarity

INTERDISCIPLINARITY.

The development of innovative and creative ideas in the academy is taking place in the early 2000s largely across departmental and disciplinary divides. Intradisciplinary practice tends to be microfocused and piecemeal. Innovation proceeds intradisciplinarily, where it proceeds at all, mostly in small if not minute increments. Departmental institutionalization itself has been transforming, prompted by interdisciplinary practice. This is the case whether one considers the sciences or humanities, technology development or the arts, or the social or applied sciences. Universities continue to organize themselves around discrete departments of mathematics, physics, biology, or computer science, schools of engineering, and professional colleges, to be sure. Science research, however, tends to occur collectively and collaboratively. Laboratories (for example, in bioinformatics or in nanoscience) require teams of researchers with more or less wide-ranging field training, methodologies, techniques, and technological expertise. Experiments, discoveries, and research outcomes in the sciences may be attributed to the individual lab as much as to the traditional disciplines or departmental structures. Departments profit too from the results of these interdisciplinary research labs (not least from the external grant funding they generate). Hiring in the sciences consequently is often made between multiple departments and increasingly with interdisciplinary research goals in mind.

Where the sciences have been largely fearless in leading, the social sciences and the humanities have tended to follow, if for their own reasons. Schools or colleges of constitutively interdisciplinary applied social science programs have become increasingly popular, often supplemented by resident historians or philosophers or, increasingly, cultural analysts. A similar mutually constitutive relationship has been unfolding in U.S. universities between core humanities departments and interdisciplinary humanistic inquiry.

While interdisciplinarity has become de rigueur, at least rhetorically, more widespread acknowledgment and institutional credit nevertheless has been much slower in the making. An interdisciplinary model, humanistic or social scientific or more compellingly erosive of that divide, requires a shift from largely contained and constrained, field-specific themes and methods to problem-or issue-based objects of analysis, more or less unbounded questions, and multifaceted methodologies. This latter disposition likewise tends to be less figured around national imaginaries or boundaries than has largely been the case in many humanistic fields in the past. It concerns itself consequently more with contact, flows of ideas, and cultural intersections than with the cultural heritage of nationally defined and fixed products.

This newly emergent model accordingly can be considered an intellectual byproduct of globalization. Social thinking and the humanities as a result have been transformed in unexpected and unpredictable ways. For example, the renaissance of classical studies in the early twenty-first century has flowed from the merging of traditional linguistic and historical studies of specifically located areas in the ancient world with archaeology enhanced by new techniques of digital imaging and an expansive political geography. These interactive developments have transformed the map of the ancient world by asking questions posed by critical race theory, gender studies, or post-colonial theory in addition to the more traditional interrogations of objects, texts, and images from the period in question. Similarly, the latter-day emergence of oceanic or regional studies is a function not only of the implosion of area studies but also of the perceived limits of disciplinary determinations in the face of complex thematic and problem-driven research foci.

Humanities and Social Sciences

The humanities have characteristically taken themselves as revealing what it is to be human and humane, just as the social sciences have long reproduced what they have presupposed as normative models of psychology, sociality, governmentality, even historicality. Together they have purported to teach what it means to be rational and reasoned, cultured and moral, social and political, learned and worldly. The institutional history of what has been conceived as "the humanities," and perhaps of social thinking more broadly, has always been deeply inflected with, if it was not founded on, dominant class and ethnonational determination. It has been a difficult revelation, then, that prior to at least World War II, and really well into the 1970s, the dominant trends in the humanities and social sciences throughout the Anglo-European academy as well as in universities worldwide that are founded on the Anglo-European (and more recently American) model(s)and often part of a colonial projectfor the most part were little more than expressions of European culture, society, and governance.

Even this way of putting it is misleading, for it was not European culture, sociality, and political structure in some broad articulation that was taken to represent intellectual, moral, cultural, and political superiority. Rather, it was the sociocultural articulation of historical layers and tissues of connection between dominant national configurations within the European orbit. Philosophy and classics, English, Romance languages (principally French and Italian) and German, and even history not only embody their own particular histories; they are taken, evenone could say especiallyin their dominant ethnonational articulation, to represent the march of history as such. The "best that had been thought and written" had a distinct and delimited geolinguistic and intellectual range. Anythingand the intellectual life of anywhere beyond the English, French, and German, prompted by earlier influences of the Italian and Greekwas either rendered invisible or arrogantly dismissed as exotic, quaint, or simply inferior.

Creating Disciplines

The definitions and elaborations of the terms of the human, the humane, and the humanistic were the stuff principally of the dominant disciplines in the humanitiesphilosophy and classics, national languages and literatures, history, and art history. The terms of the psychological, social, political, and cultural, by extension, were the domain of the social sciences. The prevailing objects of analysis in the humanities accordingly were conceptual, linguistic, artifactual, or textual; those in the social sciences were largely empirical (at least in the broad sense, both quantitative and qualitative). In both cases, objects and methods of analysis were distinctly disciplinarily driven and far from universal, as they more often than not assumed themselves to be. By the middle of the twentieth century, these disciplines tended to be self-contained and self-referential, methodologically streamlined, if not singular. Disciplinary training consisted of analytical, epistemological, and methodological apprenticeship. This included the ability not only to apply the analytic apparatus and methodology thought properly constitutive of the discipline but also to determine what was considered, from inside the discipline, to be the right questions to ask. This after all was what it meant to acquire (a) discipline.

Intellectual hegemony within the humanities and social sciences was never complete nor was it ever completely stable. Intellectual resistances, for example, emerged in the 1930s, complementing the political ones. Entangled intellectual and political countermovements ebbed and flowed between the 1930s and 1960s. Intellectual diversification within and across the academy was boosted by the growing class, ethnic, racial, and gendered diversification of those entering at least the American university in the wake of World War II, bolstered initially by the GI Bill and then by the rising tide of middle-class aspirations. These developments unleashed novel interests and demands for different knowledges and new forms of representation that cut across the traditional epistemological organization known as disciplines. It is this rich mix that has come to be recognized as "interdisciplinarity."

Often implicitly, sometimes overtly, this emerging inter-disciplinarity assumed humanistic configuration from its inception, even when not specifically noted as such. The University of Chicago's influential "Great Books" program insisted that any understanding of basic human problems had to be informed by "a select number of classic ancient and modern texts" independent of their disciplinary origin. What discipline, precisely, is responsible for the standard Great Books syllabus that includes Aristotle and Aquinas, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hegel, and Freud? Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, while proposed primarily by social scientists in 1941, singles out contributions that would ordinarily be called "humanities" as the basis and preparation for serious intellectual work. In fact, this humanistic basis for inquiry is so much a given that it is not even labeled as such.

Many scholars working in the academy in the intervening decades have reached for new constructs that could encompass the intellectual and social energies, interests, and problematics of their day while providing foundations that are both historically and culturally expansive. This imperative toward humanistic interdisciplinarity recalls the nineteenth century, when, as Lisa Lattuca argues, many intellectuals insisted on more expansive forms of inquiry not organized along the strict(ly) disciplinary lines being routinized, regularized, and institutionalized by college administrators concerned to develop "coherent and integrated courses of study." And yet nineteenth-century versions, while precursors, are really "pre-disciplinary," to use William Newell's term, not really amounting to interdisciplinarities (Lattuca, pp. 56). The disposition was perhaps there, though not quite yet the thick institutionalization of disciplines to which interdisciplinarity is a response, a resistance, a need, a challenge. Graduate and professional education and certification at the end of the nineteenth century also helped to create disciplinary boundaries, structures, and institutional bureaucracies that concretized intellectual borders. These developments served over time to transform complicated and interwoven histories of ideas (the blurred boundaries between science, anthropology, philosophy, and literature, for example) into discrete "departments" with specialized training and networks of professional affiliation (including learned societies and journals) along with the criteria of credentializing to which they gave rise and which in turn further reified disciplinary determinations.

Toward Interdisciplinarity

The new material and human arrangements brought about by globalization, long-standing processes dramatically intensified and speeded up since the end of World War II, have contributed substantially to the changing intellectual borders of disciplines. This has prompted perhaps the increasing emphasis on the "social" rather than the "science" of many social scientists, the turn to ethnography by a growing number of humanists, and the appreciation of affective aesthetic and expressive forms by many in both the humanities and the social sciences. The interdisciplinarity to which this points is not some other word for "pluralism" but rather is emerging as a result of the difficult, entangled, and ongoing problems that demonstrate the need to find better interpretive tools and complex models of cultural and human exchange and new arrangements of knowledge. As with any paradigm shift, these new structures of thinking about novel and emergent global arrangements inevitably illuminate ancillary areas of inquiryincluding many different configurations of premodern studies that have taken on new focus and energy by contact with post-colonial and global theory. If culture is the traditional site of the humanities, humanities has traditionally restricted culture to its national delimitations. By contrast, contemporary interdisciplinary humanities takes up culture as a critical diagnostic for comprehending life in the wake of globalization. It registers the contradictions and complexes of globalization, offering horizons for understanding through reflection and interpretation. It denaturalizes sedimented ways of knowing by offering novel categories of analysis and comprehension and new catalogs of cultural archive.

This broadened frame, in turn, has begun to erode the wider boundaries between the humanities and social sciences just as newly emerging questions have begun to soften the traditionally hard lines between the sciences, technology, the humanities, the social sciences, and even the arts. The National Science Foundation in the United States, for instance, is insisting in the early 2000s that proposals for engineering new digital technologies demonstrate their constitutive human and community benefits, a mandate that in turn is driving new collaborative engagements between technologists, humanists, social scientists, lawyers, and artists to mutually transformative effect.

Disciplinarity, then, is an institutional creation, forged out of specific histories, in specific places. It has offered an anchor in the face of increasing epistemological dubitability as disciplinary influences and effects have traveled, circulating between metropolitan and colonial sites. What has come to be marked as interdisciplinary practice prompts objects of analysis more diffuse and multiplicitous, more fully prompted than those disciplinarily driven. These objects of analysis are less likely (at least thus far) to be implied by the histories of their intellectual practice and range. Rather, interdisciplinary objects of analysis in social, cultural, and humanistic thinking tend to be concerns identified as abundant in social and cultural life in various geopolitical sites. That the objects and modes of analysis can no longer simply be said to be fueled by the extension of European interests and assumptions is indicative as much of the shift in intellectual dispositions as it is a function of dramatic developments in globalized arrangements of capital and, consequently, of persons. Interdisciplinary practice that has become such an index of contemporary thinking is marked accordingly by the appeal of multiple methodologies and by broader scope and styles of question.

Models for Interdisciplinarity

There has been a good deal of what one might call the mantric recourse to interdisciplinarity as something that ought to be done in the humanities and theoretical social sciences. And yet the seminal work on conceiving the nature and scope of interdisciplinary work confirms the extensive representational power of the sciences. The natural sciences especially, complemented by the empirical social sciences, have provided the dominant model for the nature of interdisciplinarity. This has been at once liberating and delimiting. In some instances science interdisciplinarity has been robust. Information science and policy and genomic research, policy, and ethics offer two good examples. But there are other models of interdisciplinarity not well served by the model of science. The report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, "Open the Social Sciences" (1996), rightly points out that the humanities in some formations may be far more interdisciplinary in fact than the empirical social sciences. Jeffrey Sachs rightly insists in a New York Times Magazine interview discussing his commitment to "sustainable development" that interdisciplinarity is the only way to solve world problems. The need, he asserts, is "to focus not on the disciplines but on the problems and to bring together five main areas in an intensive dialogue: the earth sciences, ecological science, engineering, public health, and the social sciences with a heavy dose of economics" (Sachs, p. 45). Jeffrey Sachs notwithstanding, economics is hardly the model of interdisciplinarity that one should strive to emulate. Political economy, for instance, has suffered in the shadow of its more positivistic cousin. There are practices and ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity, and so models for it are not narrowly reducible to the prevailing conceptions in the sciences and empirical social sciences.

While some scientists embrace a vigorous interdisciplinary perspective, it is not unusual to find scientists referring both conceptually and in their exemplification of interdisciplinary practice exclusively to the sciencesbiology, chemistry, the cognitive sciences, and so forth. Humanists often speak with equal and equally intense insularity: interdisciplinarity all too often is delimited to literature and history, with a grudging nod perhaps to anthropology or a facile invocation of sociology or political economy. It is important, then, to pay attention to the fact that there are different conceptions, models, and practices of interdisciplinary venture. Of particular interest are the robust senses of interdisciplinarity across the more traditional divides between the humanities, the sciences, the applied sciences and technology, the arts, and the social sciences.

These shifts are evidenced by the fact that the regime of interdisciplinarity has occasioned tremendous changes in habits of reading. Under the ancien régime of robust disciplinarity, reading was driven mostly from within the discipline. This included who and what one read (or at least professed to have read) and discussed within seminars and colloquia, at departmental affairs, in oral dissertations, and so on. A scholar was socialized into and by the disciplinary bounds of reading and through conversation around and about these sets of readings. It is revealing to notice that in the late twentieth century this boundedness of reading broke down rather dramatically. Twenty-first-century scholars read with little, or far less, attention to disciplinary constraint and concern, more readily drawing on work that speaks to the problematics and themes with which they are concerned. Work in literature might readily draw on historical studies, obviously, but also on reading from women's or critical gender or race studies, from visual studies, art history, and philosophy traditionally conceived, as well as from sociology or politics or anthropology. The history and philosophy of science are no longer the only endeavors in the humanities to engage with the sciences, as the distinctions between nature and culture and the social and biological increasingly blur, and one looks for new languages of representation and novel vocabularies of reference. Science and technology studies are the natural outgrowth of this convergence of interests. The first generation of digital humanities that has focused almost exclusively on digital collections of cultural heritage, important as they have been, are now leading to more robust, mutually transformative engagements between engineering, information technology, humanities, and the arts.

Obstacles to pedagogy.

One obstacle to vigorous interdisciplinary pedagogy concerns methodological and epistemological considerations. There is, of course, the pedagogical tension between the clean slate proposed by John Locke (16321704) and the historicality associated with the legacy of Wihelm Dilthey (18331911). It is difficult to train students in interdisciplinary modes of analysis and thought when they have yet to grasp the intellectual histories, historically prevailing questions, and thematics prompting the interdisciplinary disposition to begin with. It is no doubt easier to introduce rigorous interdisciplinary modalities in teaching at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level, notwithstanding the consideration that less-formed minds tend to be more open to new possibilities. And a good part of the restraint on interdisciplinary pedagogy has to do with the fact that teaching in universities and colleges tends so largely to be ordered around disciplinarily organized departments with relatively few possibilities provided for recognized and credited cross-disciplinary pedagogical partnerships.

There are various ways to sharpen the contrast between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. One of course is methodological. But there are also deep epistemological distinctions. Disciplines produce knowledge according to different criteria than does interdisciplinary practice, and they credentialize that knowledge on different grounds. There does seem to be a contrast between the positive sciences, broadly conceived, as engaging in the practice of "looking for" and the humanities, for which "thinking about" or reflection, for want of better terms, is the driving modality. Disciplinarity, relatedly, is often thought to produce so-called positive knowledge through constraint and boundedness, a "knowing that," to use Gilbert Ryle's (19001976) term, in contrast to a "knowing how." Interdisciplinarity, no doubt, can sometimes be as limited and specialized as any disciplinary project, if one is simply bringing to bear different methodologies on one highly focused question or problem (a commonplace of multidisciplinary experiment in the sciences). The sort of robust interdisciplinarity for which we are making an argument here concerns ways of combining different methodologies and approaches in seeking new yet still systematic ways to address large and complex problems not susceptible to analysis (or solution) from a single perspective.

The humanities often embrace affective aspects of intelligence, such as imagination, play, improvisation, and serendipity, as much as they embrace conventional rationalist forms of inquiry, such as logic, analysis, deconstruction, and critique. They value aesthetics as much as politics. The romance of these artful aspects, after all, revealing of one of the two major humanistic traditions, prompts a loosening of disciplinary bounds, further softening entrenched lines between humanities and the arts.

Mark Gibson and Alec McHoul talk relatedly of the constitutive incompleteness of disciplines. In large part a product of disciplinary boundedness, insularity, self-containment, and (often productive) delimitations, this constitutive incompleteness suggests epistemological partiality on the part of disciplines, both a necessarily incomplete and a relatedly one-sided knowledge of the object in question. From within the boundaries one knows an object as no more than the discipline would have it. Epistemological curiosity, if not the epistemological drive to complete knowledge, to know it all, so to speak, suggests too an epistemological push or ontological pull beyond disciplinary boundaries. This dispositive drawthe "need" of the knowing subject, qua knowledge, to know it all, the "necessity" of the object to be knownconjures or points to the beyond that might critically be called interdisciplinarities.

Less grandiosely, Kenneth Wissoker has suggested that interdisciplinarity varies by discipline: questions asked of an object of analysis, methods considered legitimate, and the conceptual apparatus deemed appropriate vary from one discipline to another, and so the practice of interdisciplinarity prompted from different disciplinary sites will vary accordingly. Interdisciplinarity prompted or practiced from within disciplines is likely to look different from interdisciplinarities the starting points for which are, say, problem-or issue-promoted (where the problem or issue is not simply discipline-specific).

Interdisciplinarity as a Critical Project

This raises the question whether it is possible to think of interdisciplinarity as cast adrift from any particular discipline, not simply the view from nowhere but from the point of transience, migration, betweenness. Is there an interdisciplinary practice not fixed or bounded by the disciplines but prompted from those spaces and gaps and interstices the disciplines inevitably fail to exhaust, their blind spots, even in their overlap? But what then is the force of the "inter " in interdisciplinarity (as opposed to focusing on the disciplines to which interdisciplinarity is a contrast)? What happens in the intellectual, conceptual, methodological spaces between disciplines? What is suggested here is a redirected focus for interdisciplinarity, from the disciplines between which there is exchange to the exchange to which the disciplines contribute and themselves change as they do.

Conceived thus, it may be asked whether interdisciplinarity is, or should be, committed first and foremost to a critical project. The preceding line of argument suggests it is. If so, a prime feature of such a critical project would be antireductionism. Very often reductionism and disciplinarity are bound up with each other, predicated thus always on its object of critique. Disciplines by definition are reductive. To know an object through or via the discipline is to know it reduced to the parameters determined by disciplinary constraints, conceptual, methodological, or theoretical. If knowledge through disciplines is perspectival in this way, interdisciplinarity seeks to pluralize the sources, perspectives, dispositions, and determinations of knowledge. If disciplinary knowledge seeks objectivity through constraint, interdisciplinarity seeks knowledge through relationalities.

To learn a discipline, it might be said, is to learn a language. It is not enough simply to learn the vocabulary, though that surely is necessary. This means that keen attention also must be paidespeciallyto what could be called the syntax and semantics of the discipline, and to the cultures it conjures and projects. Approached in this way, the contrast between disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity may begin to be discerned. To become fluent interdisciplinarily is not simply to learn more than one language, to multiply the syntactical and semantic structures and cultures known. Rather, it means to assume a different, if related (even derivative), mode of speaking, to inhabit a different culture, and in that inhabitation to see differently. It is in more than an idle sense to learnto inhabita creole culture (and perhaps to be treated as creoles so often have).

It follows from all of this that there is not simply a singular correct or proper (form of) interdisciplinarity. There are, in short, interdisciplinarities rather than one interdisciplinary model or method. Were interdisciplinarity to become the currency of the academy, as Marjorie Garber has warned, it would tend to the conventional, to devolve into its own kind of disciplinarity. Heterogenizing the practices and their institutional arrangements encourages, by contrast, renewed possibilities, promotes institutional settings sustaining rather than delimiting robust knowledge promotion, even invites a more heterogeneous inhabitation of the academy. Such interdisciplinary institutional arrangements would come and go, transact and transform in vigorous relation to the vicissitudes of the problematicsthe objects of study and analysisfor which they exist and serve to illuminate. Such robust interdisciplinarities are seen as relational, flexible and transformative, self-confident and open-ended, suggestive and servicing, rather than deterministic and delimiting. Historically grounded without being historicist, they are heterogeneous and not reductionistic in assumption and scope, pluralizing and radically nonessentializing, facing heterogeneous worlds with curiosity, generosity, and sensitivity rather than with narrow introspection and incessant denial. Such robust interdisciplinarities, vigorous without being arrogant, engaged without being imperialistic, look to make connections across every area of the universityincluding the sciences, engineering, and the professional schools in their reach.

See also Cultural Studies ; Science ; Technology ; University .

bibliography

Garber, Marjorie. Academic Instincts. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Gibson, Mark, and McHoul Alec. "Interdisciplinarity." In A Companion to Cultural Studies, edited by Toby Miller, 2335. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Klein, Julie Thompson. Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities, and Interdisciplinarities. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.

. Interdisciplinarity: History, Theory, and Practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Lattuca, Lisa R. Creating Interdisciplinarity: Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching among College and University Faculty. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

Sachs, Jeffrey. "Poor Man's Economist: Questions for Jeffrey Sachs." New York Times Magazine, 12 December 2002, 45.

Wissoker, Kenneth. "Negotiating a Passage between Disciplinary Borders." Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 April 2000, 46.

David Theo Goldberg

Cathy N. Davidson

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Interdisciplinarity." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Interdisciplinarity." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/interdisciplinarity

"Interdisciplinarity." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/interdisciplinarity

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.